Wellington’s streets are bedecked with flags inscribed ‘Lest We Forget’.
Indeed. Which raises the question of what, and how, we should remember.
When I was a boy I used to go with my father to the Anzac Dawn Service at Memorial Park in Hamilton. Those were the days when there were still a fair few World War One veterans in the ranks, many missing a leg or an arm or both. Along with larger ranks of World War Two veterans, generally less maimed, and smaller groups from Korea and Malaya.
And very few, visible at least, from Vietnam. Not quite so done to remember that conflict at that time.
II. Ari Burnu
This weekend millions of Turks, British, Australians and New Zealanders will commemorate the centenary of the Allied landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula during World War One, which included the landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps at Ari Burnu.
The invasion, or expedition, or whatever you want to call it, was a classic imperial ploy: force the opening of the Straits so that the Russians could, um, something and then maybe, ah, oh well, and something else. Following on from the Crimean War, where the British and French and Ottomans were keen to keep the Russians bottled up in the Black Sea, this time the British and French were pretty dashed keen for the Russians to break out and take it to the Ottomans, what ho.
Winston Churchill usually takes a hammering for championing the idea, which turned out not to be very good or at least not well done. In his favour it must be said that at least he was trying to do something rather than settling for the slaughter of young toffs and the working class on the Western Front. And that when it failed he resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty and went off to fight in the trenches for a while.
I’ve occasionally been to the Auckland War Museum Museum for an exhibition or two, and liked to see the old stuffed elephant they had that was sprouting its stuffing after too many decades of being patted and prodded by groups of school kids.
But I don’t like going so much any more, because the building itself really pisses me off. It’s a neo-classical splat on one of the city’s most prominent volcanic cones. It screams colonial cringe. Of course it does, because it was built in the 1920s as a self-conscious self-statement of self-hood. Or something.
And it’s a war memorial, with the names of Great War battles in bas-relief around the outside. It is a massively large, massively heavy propaganda statement by the authorities of the time which, to me, says: “You did not die in vain.”
Of course it had to be massive, because you had to shout that very loudly to drown out the alternative that the First World War was an old boys’ cock-up from start to finish, and you ought to be fairly angry about it.
So instead we went for making a myth that somehow all the New Zealand deaths and injuries had had the positive effect of ‘making us a nation.’
Which annoys me even more, much more, because it casually elides the difference between ‘nation’ and ‘state’. It’s a deadly dangerous conflation that has been wantonly exploited by demagogues since the eighteenth-century, and still going strong. The ‘nation-state’ has been used time and again as justification by people with guns to harass or evict or simply kill anyone who doesn’t look like them, or speak like them, or worship like them. You’re not part of my nation, so there’s no place for you in my state.
In 1985 the Turkish government officially renamed Ari Burnu as Anzac Cove, and the New Zealand government in turn agreed to erect a monument to the memory of Mustapha Kemal Atatürk. In 1990 it was unveiled on the ridge overlooking Tarakena Bay on Wellington’s south coast. The site was chosen “for its remarkable likeness to the landscape of the Gallipoli Peninsula.”
As it happens, it’s not very far from where I live and is the turning around point for one of my occasional training tramps. It’s a lovely spot on a good day, and an imposing one when the southerly is coming in.
The inscription on the monument is Atatürk’s generous words of condolence and sympathy to the families of those he defended against with such tenacity and skill in 1915:
Those heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side in this country of ours. You, the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears, your sons are now lying in our bosoms and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they become our sons as well.
Those are fine, tender words to the mourning, and as good a place as any to start thinking about how to remember Anzac.
My first observation is simply that it would be a jolly good idea if we could see other people’s sons and daughters as our own, and they ours, without having to shed blood and lose lives in the first instance.
My second observation is that anyone who tries to tell you what the lesson of Anzac is, is selling you a bill of goods. There is no one single lesson. History is archaeology, the careful sifting through of layers of meaning. It is never a finished product. It is constantly being added to and re-analysed and argued over.
My third observation, and coming from the second, is that the past is rarely, if ever, a map to the future. There are too many contingencies in what happened to draw a straight line from here to there.
The fourth is, in apparent contradiction to the second and third although not really, that of course we can learn from the past. They will generally be negative lessons, understanding how and why our forebears blundered, so that perhaps we can better examine our own thinking and actions.
My final observation returns to the first: that seeing each other as we really are is a seriously difficult endeavour. It is not simply a matter of wishing and making it so. Slogans and sound-bites are red flags advertising shallow thinking. Peace, no less than war, perhaps even more than war, takes effort and courage and sacrifice.